CLOUDS OVER a village on the Golan Heights.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Before boarding the plane on his return to Israel last Monday from Washington, where several hours earlier President Donald Trump had officially recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the press: “I am returning from a historic visit. This is something that will be remembered for generations. We have historical roots in the Golan Heights. When you stick a hoe [in the ground] there, you discover magnificent synagogues, which we are restoring. The Golan is ours by historical right and by right of self-defense – and President Trump recognized this. The fact that you [the reporters covering the visit] did not devote more than a minute to all this is something that you will have to account for.”
Like most Israelis, I was at first elated by Trump’s gesture (though not so much by its timing). However, after a few sentimental minutes, I came back to earth and to the realization that Trump’s gesture is meaningless in practical terms, since it is contrary to International Law and contrary to dozens of UN Security Council resolutions concerning the Golan.
Incidentally, the initiative for Trump’s move came from Netanyahu himself. In the beginning of January, during a meeting with US National Security adviser John Bolton – following Trump’s surprising decision to pull all American military personnel out of Syria (much to Israel’s chagrin) – requested inter alia American recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan.
Netanyahu must be perfectly aware of the fact that while Israel has legitimate security concerns connected with a possible return of Syria to the Golan Heights – and is thus justified in refusing to even consider giving up control of the territory at the moment given the current political reality in Syria and the region – it is the rules of international law that count. Unlike the case of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, whose legal status since 1949 is not absolutely clear, in the case of the Golan Heights the legal status is clear – it is an occupied territory that belongs to Syria.
The fact that all members of the EU (including Netanyahu’s new East and Central European allies) and all the members of the Security Council (except for the US) declared Trump’s move to be contrary to international law and numerous Security Council resolutions, points to the very shaky basis of the “historic event.”
Had Netanyahu consulted the legal experts (or what remains of them) in our very rickety and malfunctioning Foreign Ministry in advance, they would certainly have warned him that an announcement by Trump would be a legal dud, though it might certainly serve as a feather in his cap as far as his political base is concerned.
Netanyahu’s total contempt for international law and the United Nations undermines the whole legal basis of Israel’s existence. The goal of the Zionist Organization was declared in 1904 to be the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, based on public law (i.e. international law) – and in subsequent years its leaders worked in full cooperation with the League of Nations and later the United Nations to achieve this goal.
Without the approval of the partition plan for Palestine in the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947 – a legal act no less than a political one – the State of Israel would not have been established at that juncture, and all the biblical stories about God’s promise of the Land of Israel to the Jews – and Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael over a cumulative period of around 60 years several thousands of years ago – would not have made any difference, except in the collective Jewish memory, which is important but has no legal validity.
Even after independence, Israeli policy was based on the principle of compliance with international law, despite Israel’s many disappointments with the international community regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Never, until Netanyahu’s current term as prime minister, has so much contempt and cynicism been shown by Israel to international law and to the principles of the UN Charter. The fact that Trump shares this attitude does not diminish the dangers inherent in it.
Incidentally, it is no accident that until three years ago, Israel never declared its sovereignty over the Golan Heights, but rather that “the law, adjudication and administration of the state shall apply to the Golan Heights.” It was Netanyahu who first declared it in an April 2016 political speech.
There is a need to bring Israel’s foreign policy back down to Earth. There is also an urgent need to bring about the rehabilitation of the Foreign Ministry and turn it into an effective policy-supporting body and watchdog that can ensure that Israel’s foreign policy remains on solid ground. However, what the ministry requires more than anything else is a full-time minister.
A recent campaign launched by the Abba Eban Institute of International Diplomacy in the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, headed by the former director general of the Foreign Ministry and former ambassador Ron Prosor, proposes such a rehabilitation with a systematic outline of what ought to be done.
It should be noted that it was not Netanyahu who began the degeneration of the Foreign Ministry. Even in the days of the mythological Abba Eban as foreign minister, the ministry was always primarily a servant of Israel’s defense requirements. The fact that the Knesset has a single Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in which foreign affairs are secondary to security, well reflects this reality.
The maladies of the Foreign Ministry since its inception have been discussed in numerous State Comptroller reports, academic studies and writings of former senior Israeli diplomats. There have been various legislative initiatives – primarily by MKs – to amend this situation, but so far to no avail.
While Netanyahu is not to be blamed for the basic maladies, he is certainly responsible for aggravating the situation. In the past, the situation manifested itself in the absence of a clear definition of the ministry’s role. Today, the lack of adequate funding and manpower difficulties augur an almost total collapse – enhanced by the systematic cannibalization of the ministry in the past four years, through the removal of many of its important functions and their distribution among disgruntled Likud ministers as “compensation” for their failing to realize their political ambitions.
I do not know whether a properly functioning foreign minister with a full-time independent ministry would be able to stand up to Netanyahu and at least require him to conduct proper consultations before allying Israel to uncouth and frequently nasty regimes – or encouraging the American president to embark on all sorts of dramatic gestures that might serve his own personal political interests but do not tally with international law and could have grave long-term consequences.
In the final reckoning, it will probably not be Netanyahu who will have to contend with the long-term consequences of his foreign policy and destruction of the Foreign Ministry in the last four years, but rather whoever replaces him – whether from within his Likud or from the current opposition.
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